Sophie Bevan Recalls the Great War

Songs of Vain Glory Sophie Bevan (soprano), Sebastian Wybrew (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 14.12.2014 (RB)

Songs of Vain Glory

A Call to Arms
The Home Front
A Popular Medley
At Sea
After the Armistice

This recital featured a wide selection of songs from numerous composers commemorating different aspects of the First World War.  Both my grandfathers fought in that war and I have recently been reading documents relating to their experiences fighting in the trenches.  I therefore found the songs in this recital particularly intriguing as they provided an overview of the emotional journey which many of the service men faced.

The recital opened with Finzi’s At a Lunar Eclipse which is a setting of a Thomas Hardy poem.  The poem places the tumultuous events of the past into context by comparing them with the sheer immensity of a lunar eclipse.  There are echoes of Holst’s tone poem Egdon Heath in the music which is also based on a work by Hardy (his novel The return of the Native).  Wybrew’s sombre opening chords captured the sense of vastness and timelessness in the music.  Bevan’s diction was very clear and top notes were very clean and focused.

The next part of the recital, ‘A Call to Arms’ featured songs by Britten, Somervell, Bridge and Ives.  Britten attracted some opprobrium because of his pacifism during the Second World War and his song O the Sight Entrancing argues that it is not war which makes men free but the mind alone.  Wybrew did well with the lively syncopated accompaniment and Bevan’s  intonation was spot on but her diction was not as clear as it might be.  Both performers captured the sense of nobility and patriotism in Somervell’s To Lucasta, on Going to the Wars.  Bevan brought a lovely tenderness and warmth to Ives’ Tom Sails Away while Wybrew evoked spectral echoes on the piano.

The next section of the recital, ‘The Home Front’ opened with Gurney’s Most Holy Night.  Bevan allowed the easy lyricism of the song to shine through in the opening stanzas and brought a vocal richness to the heightened emotions in the final verse.  Both performers did well with Stanford’s pastoral tone painting in A Soft Day and I particularly liked Bevan’s rendition of the final lines of each stanza, “While the rains drips/Drips, drips, drips from the eaves”.  Bevan showed her consummate gift for story-telling in Britten’s Sweet Polly Oliver and both performers did a good job in bringing out the light folk simplicity of the song.  Haydn Wood’s Roses of Picardy was the last song in this section and I loved the sense of yearning and rapture which Bevan brought to the piece while Wybrew created a heady, romantic atmosphere.

The next part of the recital featured a popular medley of music hall songs.  Bevan nailed the sense of cheery camaraderie and light whimsy in Goodbye-ee.  She sang Nat Ayer’s If I were the Only Girl in the World with a sense of wistful longing and romantic bliss.  Both performers captured the intimacy and depth of Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs:  the final picture of soldiers coming home to be reunited with their sweethearts was a nice way to end of the first half of the concert.

The second half opened with four songs about men fighting at sea – with the focus on trench warfare we sometimes forget this important aspect of the First World War.  Haydn’s Sailor’s Song from 1795 talks about maintaining Britain’s glory and was given a robust and muscular performance here.  It reminded me a little of Arne’s songs at the Proms but I’m not convinced this performance captured the Classical finesse and decorum in Haydn’s music.  Elgar’s Submarines was better with Bevan producing a nicely sustained vocal line and soaring through phrases, while Wybrew succeeded in evoking the dark depths of the ocean.  Bevan’s rendition of Britten’s Tom Bowling was absolutely wonderful:  she really made the most of the words in the poem and depicted the eponymous Tom to perfection.  She produced a gorgeously pure, angelic sound at the end of each stanza which was particularly affecting.

A Britten song – Oft in the Stilly Night – also opened the next section about bereavement.  I loved the soft ethereal sounds which Wybrew produced on the piano while Bevan captured the feelings of unease and disquiet associated with loss.  No commemoration of the Great War would be complete without Rupert Brooke:  John Ireland’s song Spring Sorrow is a setting of his poem of the same name.  It received a sensitive and emotionally open reading from Bevan and there was some nicely judged word painting.  There was more fine word painting in Frank Bridge’s Come to me in my Dreams:  Wybrew provided wonderfully lush piano textures in the opening section and Bevan powerful dramatic contrasts in the third stanza.

The final three songs in the recital covered the period after the armistice.  Bevan captured the sense of longing for the familiar in Warlock’s My Own Country – the homecoming depicted in the poem was not glorious and heroic but one where a soldier yearns for the places he knows and for peace and tranquillity.  The last song in the recital was Stanford’s Homeward Bound.  Bevan sang with a ravishing fullness of tone and allowed the final line, “There lies the home of all our mortal dream” to die away leaving the hall completely quiet.

The Wigmore audience responded enthusiastically and were rewarded with another performance of We’ll Gather Lilacs as an encore.


Robert Beattie





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